Digging Dinosaurs

Observations while perusing: “Digging Dinosaurs,” by John Horner and James Gorman, 1988.

Despite neither having funding or the scholastic position, Horner, a paleontologist, proceeded to a fossil dig with others for four weeks of his summer in Montana, 1978 (Horner and Gorman 29).  I find that this is common among fossil hunters.  Many of us are hobbyists and quite willing to collaborate.  The lesson to young, aspiring paleontologists:  Fossil hunting can be a Spartan lifestyle and often involves volunteering “on your own dime.”  I appreciated the consideration to basic geologic information and fossil collecting techniques as written in this book.  Descriptions of the supply and provision of dig sites were elaborated upon.  This is a nice book to help a person understand if paleontology might be of interest as a career.  In one entry, Dr. Horner described the loneliness and boredom of sitting in a dry car on a rainy day.  Get a day job and do paleontology on the side.  See what comes next.  

As I continued reading in the book “Digging Dinosaurs,” I learned that Horner’s associate “fossil digger” was a high school teacher.  I was about to make that suggestion in the previous paragraph as a “main gig” to fuel the fossil hunting hobby.  I think the two go well together. 

On page 79, Horner discussed the unique nature of duckbill dinosaurs:  They chewed their food.  Most reptiles do not chew their food.  Along the way, he indicated that nest-tending is not a distinct reptilian behavior and built a case toward a more warm-blooded, bird-like behavior of these critters.  This jived with the contemporary thinking of others from the 1980’s, such as Dr. Robert Bakker, a paleontologist who considered that birds were the living, extant version of dinosaurs.

In the Willow Creek area of Montana, eight 6-foot diameter dinosaur nests with fossil eggshell bits, were discovered approximately 23 feet apart, about the same distance as the body length of the mature female.  This indicated that the hadrosaur mothers, the Maiasaurs, were colonial in their nesting habits, like birds (Horner and Gorman 104).  Eventually somewhat intact eggs were discovered (instead of just eggshell bits), and it was determined that the duckbill eggs were oval and about 8 inches in length (Horner and Gorman 106).

When volunteers found a new fossil, Horner allowed them to name the new dig site. Cool, in a nerdly way.  He also discussed changing employment to a different teaching institution in the middle of his work. It is real life that some people, even your own school may not be incredibly interested in your work.  It is what it is: “A Prophet is without honor in his own country.”  It is delightful that he was able to find an alternative to the position that he vacated.  After his departure, his original school gave away the bones of the discoveries he had made while employed there.  Horner did ask for them and received them as curator at a different institution “on loan.”  Weird how things work out.

As I read the introduction to the book, I was intrigued by the idea that the book was put together by James Gorman, with John Horner as contributor.  I got the impression that Dr. Horner (Honorary Doctorate, I learned along the way) was somewhat an introvert and that others around him provided community.  Dr. Horner may have been the introvert, but he certainly provided the nucleus around which many other people thrived.   As I read the book, I learned about how that he was hospitable to interested volunteers coming with their children.  This took a lot of patience.  Even though this book is about the societal nature of dinosaurs, I am learning just as much about camaraderie among humans about a cause, in this case:  dinosaur digging.

As with many unexpected events, it was the seismic activity of an oil exploration crew that led to the discovery of eggs of different dinosaur species.  Environmentalists complain about strip-mining and “disturbing the environment,” but these disturbances often reveal fossils not before seen.  This was exactly the case of the W. M. Browning Cretaceous Fossil park near Frankstown, MS where I hunt for fossil shark teeth.  Road work in the early 1990’s leading to preparation of highway 45 in northeast Mississippi exposed fossils which had been previously “invisible.”  Again, neat, interesting and providential how things work out:  sometimes, what seems as an “inconvenience” may lead to opportunity!

On page 151, the process of using mild vinegar and citric acid were described as agents for removing excess limestone from fossils safely.  This followed the description of the use of jackhammers to remove unwanted rock.  The process of fossil hunting and conservation is sometimes delicate and at other times quite brutal.

On page 157, the author noted that pterosaurs were flying reptiles, but not dinosaurs.  The common “word” is that dinosaurs descended from reptiles.

On page 169, the mosasaur was described as a seagoing lizard, but not a dinosaur.  Horner went to Paris to consult with a French contemporary paleontologist (Armand de Ricqlès), also mentioned by Dr. Bakker in “Dinosaur Heresies.”  Much “dancing” about the definition of warm blooded versus cold blooded occurred and as described by Dr. Horner, he left France with as many questions and research possibilities as answers.  In the meantime, Horner promoted one of his associates in her research scholarship of some of the duckbill discoveries.   Science is about helping other aspiring scientists and Dr. Horner did this well.

He described the lack of funding for vertebrate fossil research in the 1980’s.  As time transpired for Dr. Horner and his team, fossil “doors” closed, and others opened…more and varied discoveries were made. 

Through his collaboration, Dr. Horner showed that even dinosaurs move in herds and live communally.  The main bonus takeaway from this book was the importance of friendships, relationships and kindred spirits in the pursuit of science dreams of Dr. Horner.  Locals were crucial in providing fossil artifacts stimulating his pursuit of more fossil epiphanies in the wild.  The discoveries of social behavior of dinosaurs while cooperating with his “human tribe” were a synergistic pair, both nicely illustrating “community.” 


Horner, John and James Gorman.  Digging Dinosaurs.  Workman Publishing Company, 1988.

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